How to Talk About Israel

Over the course of this past year, I have spent countless hours leading conversations about Israel using a curriculum called iEngage Israel. The program which was offered in a half dozen Minneapolis synagogues was sponsored by the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. 

Rather than discuss the history or politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we discussed Jewish values that underpin our individual and communal approach to Israel. We delved into a variety of topics- peace, justice, compromise, etc.- each from multiple perspectives, each grounded in Jewish texts, thought and beliefs.

The class reminded participants not only of the complexity of the conflict but the rich, wonderful complexity of Jewish teachings. Take but one example. Self-preservation is a mitzvah. We are commanded to protect ourselves from attack. But self-preservation does not take precedence over all other moral concerns. It does not mitigate all other moral responsibilities. Take a different example: The Torah teaches that pursuing peace is a mitzvah. But what kind of peace? And how much of a risk are we supposed to take for peace? Self-preservation and peace are both Jewish values. But how we apply them varies depending on the circumstances and the weight we place on each.

I share this now knowing that many of you are engaged in your own conversations about Israel. I certainly am. And they are not always easy. They are not always easy because the situation is volatile, extremely complex, and because I care deeply about Israel. Israel is personal and discussions can easily become divisive. 

In these times, it is important to remember that no matter how fervently we believe we are right, we are not going to solve the conflict right here, right now. That alone should help us lower the temperature. But there is more we can do to engage in constructive Israel dialogue.

I know we will not agree on everything and that is okay. As with Torah study, we are used to wrestling with different understandings. Speaking the language of Jewish values inspires deeper conversations that honor viewpoints different than my own. 

As you engage in Israel conversations, I invite you to consider these questions:

  • What Jewish values underlie your perspective on events currently unfolding?
  • How might those core values might lead to different policy outcomes?
  • When you disagree with others over Israel, are you disagreeing about fundamental Jewish values, or your assessment how and when to apply those values? 
  • Can you discern Jewish values in the opinions of those with whom you disagree? 

To be sure, there are opinions regarding Israel that fall outside what I deem acceptable criticism. And I will not hesitate to object when Israel is delegitimized, when its right to exist is denied. But with deep, compassionate listening, I hope we can avoid making Israel into the issue that divides us. Indeed, I want to create a community where our love for Israel unites us more than our different opinions separate us.

On Shavuot, our ancestors made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When they arrived, they were greeted with Psalm 122. These words remain our prayer today: “We stood within your gates, Jerusalem, Jerusalem rebuilt, a city uniting all. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May there be peace within your walls, serenity within your homes. For the sake of my comrades and companions, I pray that peace be yours.”